Zeppelin Adventure (Robin Johnson, Spring Thing 2018)

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Robin Johnson’s Versificator engine is designed to give the player access to a parser IF-like world model but a choice-based interface, free of verb-guessing. The two previous games in this space, Draculaland and Detectiveland, feature navigation and inventory puzzles that feel quite text adventure-like, but in a more accessible format.

At any given time, the player has quite a few choices available — usually one or several movements between rooms, as well as ways of examining or interacting with environmental objects, and then some things that you can do with your inventory items. But these aren’t listed all in one place; instead, choices associated with something in your inventory become visible only when you’re carrying that inventory item. So there are partially hidden options, and you do generally have to draw some connections yourself before being able to execute a puzzle solution.

zepellincover.jpgFeatured in Spring Thing 2018Zeppelin Adventure continues that tradition, set this time in a wacky-explorer universe where people are plotting out Mars from their giant balloons. Yours, however, suffers an accident and crash-lands on a planet dominated by robots, and you have to go on a quest to find repair parts for your engine.

As the cover art suggests, this is a pulpy kind of story that leans into certain genre conventions both present and historical.

So far, so straightforwardly text-adventure-y. There are a few bits of social and political commentary, but the tone remains light. The style of the puzzles is classic without feeling stale. Medium-sized set piece puzzles usually occupy one to three adjacent rooms, most objects are applicable in just one or two places, and there’s a mix of puzzle types, given unity by some common themes. Quite a few of the puzzles have to do with intervening in the operation of a mechanism of some kind, usually by figuring out just the right moment to act and stop the cycle from proceeding as it normally would — and even the endgame sequence makes use of that structure. None of the puzzles feel like filler, or like recapitulations of old standbys.

It took me several more iterations to deal with a particular timing-based puzzle than I might have preferred, because I guessed wrong about what I was trying to accomplish, and the game didn’t give me a lot of feedback about the wrong approach I was taking.

(For the curious: V jnf gelvat gb trg gur zrpunavpny qevaxre naq onegraqre gb pbyyvqr ng gur whxrobk, be gur qevaxre gb trg va gur jnl bs gur onegraqre’f envyf fb ur’q or hanoyr gb erghea gb zl cbfvgvba va gvzr. Gur vagrenpgvba jvgu gur qnegobneq qvqa’g bpphe gb zr hagvy V’q purpxrq gur uvagf.)

I generally like how Versificator works: it gives me a feeling that is pleasantly reminiscent of parser IF but without the actual typing. And indeed that’s the whole idea: the author writes

I’m hoping to make a game that feels as much like classic Infocom as possible while still being playable without a keyboard.

*

Because I’m particularly looking at interface this month, I’m going to go a little deeper than usual on that aspect in this review. Here’s a screenshot of Detectiveland, the more advanced of Johnson’s two previous Versificator games:

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Current and past text appears on the left, styled like a parser IF game (complete with the command prompt). New interaction options appear on the right, and we even get a little picture of the NPC we’re currently talking to. There are a lot of buttons, true, and they may feel a little haphazardly scattered; because options are constantly changing, there’s no way to build muscle/layout memory of the form “the east compass button is always over here”.

Zeppelin Adventure makes a couple of tweaks to this approach, one of which I like and one of which didn’t work as well for me. Positive point first: if you look closely at the inventory section in Detectiveland up there, you’ll note there’s a “look” button for your inventory item. Pretty much every inventory item will have a look button by default, so this adds slightly to the potential clutter. On the other hand, the system doesn’t always provide for you to look at things that are merely present in the environment. Zeppelin Adventure simply makes clicking the name of an item, any item, mean “look at this” — which feels natural, and removes some potential clutter from inventory lists.

The change I liked less: it puts all of its options in a single column. There’s a status bar, followed by text-adventure-styled scrollback, followed by separate text areas devoted to location information, inventory I’m holding, inventory I’m carrying, and out-of-game actions like “undo”. And if I get into a conversation with someone, that pops up yet another layer of options, differently styled, like this:

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I’m not sure why this was done. Maybe it works better on mobile, or plays better with screenreader software — both noble goals. On my laptop, though, I found it a counterproductive change. The interface did not naturally lead my eye towards where the next bit of text was likely to appear, and I initially felt a bit disoriented by the structure. And line width on the scrollback lines was much wider than I prefer to read, whereas in the previous renditions, the dimensions were more like the dimensions of a comfortable paperback.

In any case — this is a lot of detail given to the interface side of things, primarily because this is interface month on this blog.

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